The old joke about the 1960s was that if you remember them you weren’t really there. Maybe that’s the same about the party at 10 Downing Street in May 2020. The Prime Minister initially seems not to recall if he was there or not. Saying this will become clear after a review by senior Civil Servant Sue Gray. This line of defence was shown up ad absurdum by the comedian Rosie Holt, who parodied an MP who needs an enquiry to tell her if she’d been at the party. He changed his position yesterday, admitting he was at the event but did not realise it was a party. Did he not see the memo?
Questioned by Sir Keir Starmer and by SNP leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, he repeated many times his mantra that we should wait for the results of Ms Gray’s enquiry.
Boris Johnson is using the age old tactic of hiding behind an enquiry to not answer questions about his conduct. This strategy has been used by everyone from Tony Blair to António Horta-Osório, the former CEO of Lloyds Banking Group. Faced with accusations of a cover up about what senior figures at Lloyds knew about the HBOS Reading scandal, he commissioned a report by respected judge Dame Linda Dobbs into the issue. Dame Linda started her work on 26 April 2017 and still hasn’t published the results. Mr Horta-Osório left the bank last year and is now chair of Credit Suisse.
To be fair to Dame Linda, she has been delayed by having a higher volume of evidence than she had anticipated, and by the catch all excuse of Covid-19. However this is a demonstration, ad extremis, of how you can use an external review to kick difficult issues into the long grass.
Usually you appoint lawyers or a judge, as they will take a legalistic approach that will slow things down to a snail’s pace. Then – if there are controversial findings – the report will go into a process called Maxwellisation (after the late fraudster Robert Maxwell, not his even more controversial daughter Ghislaine). This is where all the potentially damaging sections relating to individuals are sent to those individuals for review (and they get their lawyers involved, so slowing their response). This can make a report that would take a couple of months to complete, stretch out for many times than length. Indeed Dame Linda originally said she’d report within a year.
Will this work for Boris over Partygate?
There are many suggesting that the choice of Sue Gray is a case of “picking the right judge” – and there is a great review of her track record from Scientists for EU suggesting that she has not a good track record of challenging ministers.
Also, if there is an issue of whether any criminal offences took place, it may be that there will be issues about publishing findings for fear of prejudicing legal proceedings.
However the big problem for Boris is that this issue is dominating the political agenda, so trying to take the heat out of the issue though Sue Gray’s enquiry is just adding fuel to the flames. There are many commentators and senior politicians, including those within the Conservative Party, suggesting this is the hill that the PM’s political career might die on.
We may not need to see the conclusions of the Gray report to find out.